Caucuses v. Primaries: What’s the Difference?

by Rose Brennan & Megan DreherSenior WritersScreen Shot 2020-01-20 at 1.15.11 PM

The 2020 presidential primary season is just starting to kick off, and primaries and caucuses are the names of the game.

Two early events, the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary, are considered pivotal in the primary race and in determining the eventual presidential nominee.  But just what are these pre-election contests?

While the overall pre-nominee period is called “the primaries,” it is an umbrella term for two types of electoral processes that eventually determine the presidential nominee of a specific political party.  A “primary” indicates residents of a state vote much like any other election, but a “caucus” describes a physical and local gathering of constituents who then decide which candidate they will support.

“It’s a difference between numbers and enthusiasm.” said Jonathan Keller, Ph.D., assistant professor of political science. “Most of the large states with the most delegates have primaries. In a primary, you show up, you vote for your candidate of choice, and then you leave. In a caucus, if the candidate you support hasn’t reached a certain percentage of support, you are then approached by people who will try to influence your decision based on who is currently doing well. That’s why the candidates with the most enthusiastic candidates win caucuses. It doesn’t matter if they’re leading in the polls.”

At one time, caucuses were among the favored forms of primary voting.  Now, only 10 states still use the caucus system: Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Minnesota, Nevada, North Dakota and Wyoming.  The other 40 states use a primary system wherein they vote using a secret ballot.

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According to Keller, the Democratic party has been encouraging states to move away from the caucus system and towards primaries because they are more democratic in nature and less of a commitment. They also tend to favor one type of candidate over others in the field.

“For example, Barack Obama swept all of the caucuses back in 2008 over Hillary Clinton, because his voter base was more enthusiastic, had more spare time, and was able to show up and do what you have to do to caucus,” said Keller.

Primaries, however, are not as straightforward as one might think.  There are two forms of primaries: open and closed.  An open primary allows a constituent to vote for whichever candidate they choose, regardless of their political party.  In a closed primary, however, constituents can only vote for a candidate that is a member of the constituent’s political party.

The primary season has begun in Iowa since 1972, and has long been considered as a crucial moment in the early electoral process. If a candidate is to do very well in Iowa, it can be telling for the rest of their campaign.

The Quadrangle will cover the results of the Iowa primaries in its Feb. 11 issue.

Editor’s Note: Rose Brennan is also an editorial intern at The Riverdale Press.Screen Shot 2020-02-03 at 1.22.14 PM